Memories of an Old French Home

It’s probably the greatest fiscal con job that’s ever been perpetrated on the U.S. public,’ said Johns Hopkins economist Steve Hanke on Monday.

He was talking about the ‘infrastructure’ bill. Headlines report it variously at US$550 billion, US$1 trillion, and US$1.2 trillion.

We could Google it to find out for sure exactly how much money is being frittered away, but we’re not going to bother. What’s a few billion more or less?

Besides, as Mr Hanke points out, it is just the snout of a ‘$5 trillion monster’ that the feds are now stitching together. Up next is the US$3.5 trillion ‘human infrastructure’ budget.

And then, in ‘reconciliation’ — where the House bills and Senate versions are reconciled — there comes another opportunity to sew on more ears and noses.

We’ll leave that story for another day. Today, we will continue telling you about our home in France.

Different sounds

But let’s back up…a quarter of a century. The sounds then were very different.

Time to get up…we have work to do!

Every Saturday morning, we rattled the children’s bedroom doors.

Do we have to?’ came the little voices from within.


A groan inevitably followed. Oh yes…there were unhappy sounds as well as joyful ones. The walls remember them all.

Then, one by one, the children staggered down the stairs to breakfast in front of an open fire (our only source of heat).

The children were obliged to help their father on Saturdays. On Sundays, they had the day to themselves…for catching up on schoolwork or doing whatever they wanted.

The house was built centuries ago; no one knows exactly when. It fell into the hands of the Ducellier family during the French Revolution. They bought it at a ‘candle auction’ (the top bid when the candle goes out is the winner), after the previous owners fled to England to escape the Terror.

The Ducelliers lived here for the next 200 or so years — making substantial modifications and embellishments in 1910.

And there it was when we came on the scene…naïve pilgrims from the New World, with stars in their eyes so bright, they hardly noticed that the house was a wreck, neglected for decades…with a roof leaking like a sieve…wiring from the 1950s…skeletal plumbing…and a furnace that was a fire hazard.

What a great project! We had years of fix-up ahead of us, working together with the family…

Damp and cold

We brought the family to the house in the dead of winter. ‘The heat works fine,’ the previous owners had told us.

But the antique wood furnace in the basement was hardly up to the job. If we chucked in oak logs, about a yard long, all day long, we could get the temperature in the house above 45 degrees…

But by then, the furnace was red hot and the house was ready to catch fire.

After about a month, we had run into stiff opposition.

The house was so damp…and so full of mould and mildew…we were getting sick. The children’s tutor, who had eagerly followed her students to France, had to be hospitalised.

Maybe we should go home,’ was the proposed strategy for a retreat.

But this is our new home,’ we answered. ‘She needs us.

We moved to a small, abandoned farmhouse. There, we opened the windows…swept…mopped…and made a giant fire in the kitchen fireplace. It was primitive, but it seemed dry enough to survive in.

We camped out in the farmhouse for a few months — until the long days of summer had dried out the main house.

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New sounds

Meanwhile, the work continued. The old walls — undisturbed for so many years — heard new sounds…

…scrapers on the old plaster walls, as we removed the old, musty wallpaper (hot, soapy water helped, we discovered)…

…hammers, screwdrivers, and saws, as we rehung the doors and corrected the wooden trim…

…shovels, trowels, and cement mixers, as we laid up stone walls and patched plaster…

…and the sound of glass breaking, as we replaced hundreds of cracked or broken window panes.

The walls surely recorded the happy sounds — birthday parties in the dining room…sing-alongs on the veranda…jokes and laughter in the kitchen…

…and the bitter sounds, too — the family crises…moments of sadness and despair…falls…chipped teeth…kicks from horses…the rush to the emergency room.

The complaints and the cries — whimpers and whoops — the walls heard them all.

Our aunt died here; she is buried in the local cemetery.

Fitting in

Yes, a house forgets. But a home remembers.

A home is where you bury the dead, but keep the family alive.

It remembers who you are and where you came from. It is where you keep the family albums…the heirlooms, souvenirs, and mementos…Uncle Charlie’s shotguns…Aunt Louisa’s dresser.

It is where the piano sits, waiting for a gentle caress…alongside an old guitar, its strings eager for fingers.

We were as many as 12 people in our little tribe. Children, parents, grandmother, aunt, tutor… and a friendly carpenter from America, who lived with us.

The locals worried that we were a cult. And at first, not knowing the language very well, we must have seemed weird…like the Branch Dravidians or the Children of God.

But gradually — through school, church, and farm connections — we took our place in local society — unusual but not at all a threat to the community.

Au contraire, we fit right in. The stability of the farming area appealed to us; it recalled the pleasant, family-oriented life on the banks of the Chesapeake back in the 1950s and 1960s.

That life was lost forever, as the Washington suburbs grew…

But here, we found something similar. Something that seemed even more stable. These were homes, not just houses. Old houses were rarely sold. New ones were rarely built.

Dangerous work

And they had workshops. Ours was like a museum, with belt-driven tools…including a bandsaw that would take your whole hand off in a second.

One day, we entered the workshop to find our youngest son — then about seven years old — playing with his friend from across the road. They were using the bandsaw to make swords!

Oh la la! We dismantled the saw…it was just too dangerous.

Almost every window had at least one broken pane of glass to replace. These were French windows. The work could be done from the inside. But the outside frame could be tricky…especially if it had to be replaced.

And the windows on the third floor and in the fourth-floor attic were much too high to be reached by ladder. We devised a system.

We pushed a long board out the window, resting on the sill…the children (and sometimes their mother and grandmother) would sit on the board inside the house, while their father ventured out on the other end of the teeter-totter to do the work.

Whatever you do, don’t get up,’ he warned them, tying a rope around his waist, just in case.

Don’t tempt us, Dad,’ they replied, giggling.

Embedded memories

Yes, the house must recall that. And the time we scrambled up on top of the chimney in order to lower a bag of nails to clean out a bird’s nest…

…and when we held a party on the lawn and sang Johnny Cash and Grateful Dead songs until after midnight…

…and when the chimney caught fire and spewed sparks so high, neighbours called the fire department.

But that was then. Those things are embedded in the walls. And in the ground.

We were lucky. A local entrepreneur — Mr Brule — took charge of the heating and plumbing. His business was drilling wells. But he was the sort of fellow you need on a job like that — confident and able to take command and make things happen.

That was 25 years ago. The old house still stands. But poor Mr Brule cannot stand at all. He has Multiple Sclerosis. What a curse it must be to a man so active…so accustomed to being in charge. He cannot walk…and can barely see.

Last two standing

And now, it is a quarter-century later for us, too. The old house needs more work. But now, the children are all grown up. They have families of their own. Jobs in Paris, California, and Florida. Their own projects. Their own walls. Their own shouts and tears.

Now, the tutor…the carpenter…and the children — all have left. Mother and aunt are both in their graves. Only two of us remain…father and mother…son and daughter-in-law…

We reorganise the books and photos…fix the furniture…paint the shutters…

And we listen to the walls.

Growing older, the memories grow faint…we often can’t recall: ‘Who was that?’ ‘What year was that?’ ‘How old was he then?’

But the home remembers everything.


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Bill Bonner,
For The Rum Rebellion

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Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries.

A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities.

Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally.

With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance.

Bill has been a weekly contributor to The Rum Rebellion.

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